Global Economics

Why Thailand's New Elections Will Make a Coup More Likely


Anti-government protesters sitting outside Government House in Bangkok on Dec. 10

Photograph by Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images

Anti-government protesters sitting outside Government House in Bangkok on Dec. 10

In Thailand, where protesters in the capital are demanding the ouster of the kingdom’s elected leaders, people today took the day off to celebrate, of all things, Constitution Day. How much longer Thailand’s constitution lasts is anyone’s guess. On Monday, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved the parliament and called new elections. Since the opposition hasn’t won an election in decades, the latest move isn’t likely to satisfy Yingluck’s critics, who see her as a proxy for her exiled brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

“They no longer have any hope or faith in the electoral system,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Chulalongkorn University director, told Bloomberg Television on Tuesday. “They keep losing and they think the electoral system only produces corrupt politicians based on money politics under Thaksin’s influence, led by Yingluck, so they are rejecting that system.”

For now, Yingluck’s move is likely to embolden the opposition Democrat Party and its supporters, who think Thai democracy is rigged in favor of her populist brother and the poor rural voters who support him. “The Democrats clearly smell blood,” Michael Montesano, visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, told Bloomberg News. “Without some sort of outside pressure on them to calm down, there is every reason to expect them to continue to agitate for a very different political system.”

Thais have lived with this drama for years, with pro-Thaksin red shirts and anti-Thaksin yellow shirts fighting since the populist tycoon’s ouster in a 2006 coup. Because the Democrats don’t believe democracy can work in a Thailand whose majority consistently has voted for pro-Thaksin parties, there’s probably only one way out for the anti-Thaksin forces: a fresh military coup.

I wrote last week about the increased chances of the generals intervening. Now Chulalongkorn’s Thitinan says events are leading to a probable move by the military. The protests in Bangkok have been mostly one-sided, with the anti-Thaksin yellow shirts from the Bangkok area taking to the streets. The pro-Thaksin red shirts from the north and northeast haven’t been very active, but Thitinan warns of unrest in the capital, once the ousted leader’s fans get in on the action.

“Bangkok is not Thailand, certainly, and we have not heard from the rest of Thailand,” he told Bloomberg TV. “If [the protesters and the Democrats] succeed in replacing this Yingluck government, which comes from the elections, then the red shirts will show up for revenge in Bangkok. We could see exacerbated and intensified civil conflict.”

That, in turn, would lead the generals to do what they have done so many times since the end of World War II: stage a coup. “The role of the army as enforcer of law and order will come into play eventually,” said Thitinan. “The army does not want to make a military coup. … It’s trying to stay on the sidelines but increasingly, its role will be unavoidable. It’s a very tense situation, and so far the outcomes are not very encouraging because the outcome is that—and I suspect this means if this succeeds, we will see medium-term turmoil in Thailand where the gloves really come off, and the end game will really be in play.”

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Einhorn is Asia regional editor in Bloomberg Businessweek’s Hong Kong bureau. Follow him on Twitter @BruceEinhorn.

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